Friday, February 11, 2011

Unsung Heroes

Asian Footballers.

As a long-time soccer fan - and an Asian! - I have observed with some degree of enthusiasm the steady but definite improvement in the overall quality of East Asian players and teams in the last twenty-five years. As two of the most economically prosperous countries in the East, it seems natural that Japan and South Korea would be the leaders in developing domestic soccer leagues and youth development programs which have produced some talented players and exciting teams. In the recent World Cup in South Africa, both teams performed reasonably well and produced some exciting football to illustrate that the gap in quality between the traditional football powers (Europe and South America) and Asia  is slowly decreasing.

Japan and South Korea's heavy investment in soccer has paid dividends, with several players from both countries earning the opportunity to play with some of Europe's teams in the world's toughest leagues. The now retired Hidetoshi Nakata became something of a flamboyant sex symbol/superstar whilst playing in the Italian League, and was nominated for the Footballer of The Year Award several times. South Korean, Park-Ji-Sung, has become a regular for Manchester United - one of the world's most renowned teams. Park has become something of an unsung hero of Manchester and a cult hero amongst its fans. Keisuke Honda has impressed in the Russian league and seems poised to become a true soccer hero. Most recently, Japanese player Yuto Nagamoto has joined Italian football giants, Inter Milan. Quick and tricky, he torments opponents with pentetrating runs and dangerous crosses. In addition to these four, there are, and have, been several others playing in European leagues who have become an integral part of their teams and have been embraced by their team's fans.

Apart from enjoying the skill and passion that Asian footballers like these bring to the game, the development and inclusion of Asian men as sportsmen in a mainstream pastime represents a potential avenue toward changing negative stereotypes. I tend to feel that the role that Asian sportsmen can play in countering demeaning stereotypes is often overlooked or ignored. The general consensus seems to be that it is through media characters that project a positive image of Asian men that the image of our demographic will improve. I don't necessarily agree with this entirely.

It could be argued that, historically, it has been through the process of excelling at sports where the most dramatic shifts in attitudes and beliefs about racial groups has been the most apparent. For instance, the great Jack Johnson almost single-handedly destroyed the myth of white physical superiority by defeating the best white boxers of his era. Granted, there was a severe reaction to his success, but after Johnson it could only be a matter of time before black boxers would be given opportunities in the ring. In soccer itself, players like Pele and Eusebio became football gods at a time when racial discrimination was the norm. Now, in the present era, black players make up a huge percentage of soccer players and along with it has come the commitment of reducing discrimination and racism in football.

This is why Asian sportsmen should be viewed as being at the forefront of the fight against demeaning stereotypes and beliefs about Asian men. No doubt, positive media representations can only be a good thing, but ultimately a movie hero depictions are escapism that we all know isn't real. A successful sportsman, on the other hand, competes and hopefully excels in real events where, as Asian men, they are not expected to do well. Just like modern day Jack Johnsons, Asian sportsmen are contradicting the notion that Asian men are inherently weaker than non-Asians, and are thus, slowly breaking down barriers in perception and in society in general.


  1. Good post, and I totally agree. The wonderful thing about sportsmen is that they inspire people in a positive way. There's (hopefully) none of the dirty politics that take place in other areas of competition; just people trying to mentally and physically perform and inspire others.

  2. Hey BWW

    That's right, it's the spirit of competition and the drive to excel that can be a source of inspiration.

    The good thing about sports is that performances speak for themselves. For instance, it's impossible to deny that Manny Pacquiao is anything other than a great fighter - his record and manner of his wins speak for themselves.

    Likewise, in soccer, East Asian soccer is really coming on strong and it's only a matter of time before Asia produces players of the stature of Messi and Ronaldo. What this means is that there will be young kids of all colours and nationalities trying to emulate their Asian soccer hero!

  3. God, I love your articles. I'm a huge soccer nut myself, so I can't agree more. While obviously not as crazy as the Korean or Japanese supporters (I'm ethnic Chinese myself), there's nothing I like more than seeing Asian soccer players making a name for themselves on the European stage. It's no doubt due to the fact that we've all heard the statement that "Asians can play soccer for sh*t" on the soccer field eventhough the states is considered by many as a third world country in terms of soccer.

    Nakata was definitely one of my idols growing up (hell, I'll even want a poster of his CK ads), I've never warmed to Nakamura for some reason, but Park Ji-sung had been a big favourite of mine for a while since he plays for my favourite club. But it's also quite easy to see that the european and American Manchester United supporters still find him to be an easy scapegoat, so seeing him taking apart AC Milan last year and scored again against Arsenal was priceless.

    In my view, Honda definitely has the full package to be one of the best Asian players that Asia has produced. Strong, has good stamina and a brilliant left foot, he really has the tools to play for a big club. CSKA Moscow plays in the Champion's League but it's still a Russian club.

    And it's great to see so many talented youngsters making the move to Europe and doing well. I have high hopes in Ki (at Celtics) and Uchida (At Schalke) and even Jong (from North Korea) making it big. And I'm pretty sure Kagawa is going to become my favourite players in a few year's time.

  4. Hey N..

    Thanks dude!

    Park-Ji-Sung might in the future be viewed as one of the most under-rated players of all time. I've even watched games in which the commentators could barely conceal their disdain with snarky comments about him.

    Yet, there's no doubt that he has earned his place in the Man.U side. In fact, I would say that he is perfectly suited to the English game - he has strength, and has a high work-rate which are quintessential qualities of the English game.

    So I would say that there is still alot of ignorance and negativity to overcome for Asian players.

    Have you heard of this guy....Ryo Miyaichi. He has just been signed by Arsenal and looks to have some amazing potential. The future looks bright!

  5. Soccer fans in the house!
    While it's hard to deny that Asian teams are at a slight size disadvantage compared to many of the European teams, soccer is one sport where size is less important, providing the technical ability is there. Consider that possibly the 3 greatest players of all time, Maradona, Pele and Messi, are all under 5 ft 8.

    Where Asia has a long way to go is that football is comparatively speaking, a recent addition to its culture and is not strongly ingrained. In the world's top teams it comes close to being a national obsession, and that mentality goes a long way to producing world-class players.

    I agree with you about Park Ji Sung. At Manchester United he is a role player, albeit a very good one, but underrated. In the World Cup for South Korea, he played brilliantly in a more central role and was at the heart of everything they did.

    Ryo Miyaichi looks the goods. He's clearly got a long way to go, but considering he's moved straight from high school football to first-team action at Feyenoord, there's huge potential there.

    Btw, did you know that there were at least 2 half-Asians in the last World Cup Final?

  6. Hey ES

    Wow, I had no idea that David Silva was half Asian! I knew that Van Bronckhorst and Heitinga had Indonesian heritage but didn't know about Silva. Here's an interesting factlet...the first non-white man to play for England was half Chinese man Frank Soo.

    I agree that the height difference won't hinder the progress of football in Asia. As you said, the three of the best players of all time were under 5'8', but the list of great players 5'8" or under is extensive....Ferenc Puskas, George Best, Alfredo Di Stefano (may have been 5'9"), Jimmy Johnstone, Garrincha, Romario, Hagi, and on and on...

    Also, the Spanish team that won the World Cup had an average height of 5'7", I believe, so yeah, you're right if the technique and ability is there, then the height is a non-issue.

  7. @Eurasian

    No doubt that Park is wasted on the wing. He can still put on a good job because he's fairly versatile, but he excels in a more central role where his off the ball work and short passing can be maximized. There's no surprise that most of best work is done when he drifts inside.

    There's also been plenty of mixed players in European youth setups, but for some reason, not many of them makes the next step. There's a swedish winger called Ishizaki (half Japanese), A Danish fullback named Cagara (Half flipinno), a Belgain fullback Xavier Chen (Half Taiwanese). That's a very talented Canadian foward of Jamican/Filipino descent playing in Spain now, but he represented Holland in the youth setup.

    Silva's mother is most likely to be Filipino? - her last name's Jimenez. Ironically Silva was rejected by Real Madrid youth setup because he was deemed to small. Silva's a very classy player, would love to have him in any side.

    And we have our own Nakazawa (half Japanese) playing for Philly.


    I think one of the biggest that's hindering the development of Asian is not size or even mentality, it's the lack of grass fields due to the high population density.

    I remember reading an article that Park trained on concrete pitches as a youth and therefore dribbling (and thus getting tackled) was discouraged because you're very likely to get injuries on the hard pitches.

    Ryo Miyaichi looks promising but I'm somewhat wary. I had high hopes for Ito Sho who also trialed with Arsenal and later moved to Genoble and who had disappeared since.

    Another player that disappointed me with the u17 Asian-cup winner Yoichiro Kakitani who was the star player for that team (that included Kagawa). Was one of the youngest players to turn pro and is now playing in J-2. And we had Dong over at Manchester united who didn't make the grade.

    Suk Hyun-Jun in Ajax is another young Asian player to look out for, as well as Son Heung-Min in Hamburg.

  8. N

    I've watched a couple of videos of Miyaichi playing for Feyenoord and there seems to be one particular area of concern. He seems to have a "schoolboy's vision" in the sense that when he gets the ball his tendency seems to be to sprint to the by-line when he should be trying to vary his game by cutting in, or playing a quick through ball.

    Of course, he's only 17 so as he matures and gets into the groove with the European game, he hopefully will add more dimensions to his game. But yeah, there is tons of potential.

  9. @ Ben:

    I've noticed the same thing with Ryo. When he develops the confidence to cut inside more a la Arshavin or Robben, he'll be deadly.


    Re: Park, he's a bit of a jack-of-all-trades. His greatest attribute is his hustle; but he's not quite tricky enough to be an outstanding winger like Nani, and not quite creative enough to be a great playmaker like Scholes. But he is solid at both, and Korea's style of play seems to get the most out of him.
    Btw I'm an Arsenal fan and strongly dislike Man U, but cannot dislike Park, he seems a very honest hardworking player and a solid guy.

    I agree, Silva's mother is probably Filipino in all likelihood, but there are few folks who seem to think she's Korean. But you know what the internets are like, its hard to separate fact from fiction with sources.

  10. I agree with you 100%, Ben. However, it will be difficult to produce many world-class athletes unless we culturally embrace sports seriously. I know that growing up with white kids that many were pressured tremendously to excel in little-league hockey the same way I was pressured to produce A's on the report card.

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  12. Hi MMJames

    Welcome and thanks for your comment.

    I agree. I think that the more we see successful athletes being produced in Asia, the more there will be a trickle down effect of embracing sports into those societies as well as into emigrant groups overeas.

    I think that once someone gets the ball rolling it will be almost impossible for sports to not be embraced by Asian cultures.